Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Uncommon Intellect of the Amistad Rebels: Kevin Young’s Ardency

 [By Howard Rambsy II]

Kevin Young’s Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels about the famous slave ship revolt and aftermath is a powerful work—a strong volume of poetry and historical document. Among other attributes, Ardency raises awareness about the intellectual capabilities of the Mendi people of Sierra Leone.

People with some knowledge about the Amistad and the subsequent case are likely familiar with the story of the leader Cinque who possessed a strong presence of mind. But Young’s book goes further than many popular accounts by detailing the efforts of the larger cast of rebels and their struggles for freedom.

Young’s poems—especially those in the section “Correspondence” featuring letters and speeches from the Mendi—reveal that the rebels strived to read and write while in captivity awaiting trial. They regularly wrote to white Americans as they developed and solidified a base of support and sympathy.  Reading Young’s representation of the Mendi working with and against English, Christianity, and American ideas in order to gain greater claims on freedom is fascinating.
At one point, one of the Mendi named Kin-na writes to John Adams who was working with the captives. Kin-na explains to Adams that “If Merica people give us free we glad, if they no give us free we sorry; sorry for Mendi people little; sorry for Merica people great deal because God punish liars.”

The subtle yet clear critique of Americans from Mendi like Kin-na throughout Young’s volume highlights a spirit of rebellion and intelligence among enslaved people. That spirit of rebellion and intelligence has typically failed to appear on the pages of formal and popular historical accounts unless that spirit was noted in popular figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Tubman.  

Howard Rambsy II teaches African American literature and directs the Black Studies Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He blogs and tweets about African American artistic thought, publishing history, and technology at and  

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